Today’s diverse cast of European populist politicians are likely to be humbler than Berlusconi but also more dangerous. From Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and France’s Marine Le Pen to the United Kingdom’s Nigel Farage and Italy’s new interior minister Matteo Salvini, populists across the continent see Putin and Trump as the standard bearers on matters of protectionist, nationalist and anti-immigrant policies, ideology and style.
Indeed, the idea of “sovranismo” or “sovereignism” frequently used in Italy to describe the positions of the current governing coalition of the Five Star Movement and League party closely parallels Putin’s idea of “sovereign democracy” — in effect, another name for the illiberal democracy of nationalist majoritarian rule. All share a disdain for the practices and premises of European integration and appear determined to undermine them from within. They are eager to engage Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America as a way to legitimize their own political standing and as a counterweight to Europe’s weaknesses.
The familiar refrain is that in its pursuit of a quasi-federal union, Europe has left its people behind: from the perception of a diminished purchasing power to the insecurity in Europe’s degraded suburbia, populists have styled themselves as the sensible forces bringing sanity to an increasingly surreal talk of debt mutualization and a European army. That is not an opposition to Europe per se but to a Europe that is seen as out of touch. In Salvini’s own words: “If there are EU rules that hurt Italian families and companies, we will treat them as if they did not exist.”
Yet this worldview has serious limitations, as these rules are part of a compact of continental integration that alone can make Europe a cogent force in the world. The world order looks fundamentally different from Washington or Moscow than Brussels or any other European capital. For the time being at least, the United States and Russia can muster resources and clout to produce a transformative albeit reactionary effect on world affairs. America’s imposition of tariffs may well redesign the contours of global trade relations, much as Russia’s annexation of Crimea reopened questions of sovereignty and self-determination that were thought to be confined to the dustbin of 19th-century Europe.
But while Washington and Moscow can arguably claim a high perch in an anarchical world arena inhabited by few competing power centers, Europe, much less its member states on their own, can afford no such luxury. Its populist movements and now increasingly its governments lack the weight to command attention, let alone an active role, beyond the confines of an increasingly inward-looking continent. Bandwagoning on Trump and Putin’s agendas may be tactically expedient for short-term political calculus at the national level. But since nativism and protectionism are by their very nature exclusionary, to expect Europe as a whole to reap any benefit in the long run from such an approach is a contradiction in terms.
Admittedly, the European Union’s initiatives in global politics have been too few and far between to put its mark on the world. With the exception of the Iran nuclear deal, whose fate is also increasingly shaky, the last act of Europe’s transformative power in foreign policy was the expansion toward Central and Eastern Europe over a decade ago. With the weakening of that process, notably toward Turkey, another rising illiberal champion, Europe has lost its promise to deliver tangible benefits beyond its borders.
Within Europe, a disconnect has emerged between the advocates of a single European foreign policy that promotes liberal values and the growing disaffection of the public with the narrative of openness and integration. European populists have successfully inserted themselves in this widening gap. But in doing so, they have also disingenuously corrupted the loop between domestic and foreign policies. By ascribing events such as the migrant crisis to the naivete of liberal elites, populists effectively advocate that voters can break the link between what happens inside national borders — managing the integration of migrants — with what happens outside in spiraling sectarian conflicts in the Middle East or North Africa.
Indeed, Europe’s half-baked response to the migrant crisis reinforces the decoupling of inner and outer security. The defensive approach adopted by the European political mainstream focuses the debate on the costs of interdependence. To be sure, the benefits of interdependence are not always immediate, yet the ripple effects in the long run can be massive. Interdependence in a market of half a billion consumers has turned the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, into a formidable antitrust regulator. It has enabled an estimated 9 million students to benefit from the Erasmus exchange scheme, which has become a constitutive identity marker for a generation of Europeans. Interdependence by means of ever deeper integration has turned Europe into a vast political space free of violence and governed by the rule of law.
For Europe or elsewhere, the anti-globalization backlash doesn’t change the fact that the traditional nation state has proven inadequate to contain the pervasive reach and depth of technology, trade, corporations, information and media. Paradoxically, an unwitting recognition of this assumption came from none other than Salvini, who recently advocated the need for a transnational alliance of populists. European populists seem to have both taken for granted the accomplishments of a Europe that has become more integrated precisely in order to face the challenges of global interdependence, while at the same time discrediting the institutions and practices necessary to meet that challenge.
They are European citizens in practice but not in politics, and they have adopted a transactional view of Europe. Yet, crucial developments such as the single market, the euro and the free movement of people were designed to be international goods in the public interest. What they achieved and where they failed should represent the beginning, not the end, of a conversation about the way societies and especially mature democracies organize and govern themselves.
The zero-sum transactional worldview of Trump or Putin may indeed radically transform the way America or Russia position themselves at home and abroad. But it is unlikely to benefit anybody else. Understanding and responding to the realities of transnational governance is an imperative, even in a populist Europe.